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The good news: your Association is growing by leaps and bounds, and volunteers are flocking to your door. The bad news? These volunteers, although enthusiastic and consistent, may not be what your association needs. But how do you know when it’s time to convert the work of many volunteers into one paid staff position? 

The decision to recruit volunteers or hire staff members for an organization is a crucial one that can significantly impact the overall success and sustainability of the group. Both volunteers and staff members bring unique advantages and challenges to an organization, making it essential to carefully consider the specific needs and resources available before making a decision. 

Here’s what to consider when determining if you need to create a staff position (or if volunteers can get the job done).

The Difference Between Volunteers and Employees

As defined by Nonprofit Risk Management, volunteers:

  • Work toward public service, religious, or humanitarian objectives
  • Do not expect or receive compensation for services
  • Do not displace any employees

On the other hand, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines employees (staff) as those who are hired by an organization and paid. It’s a loose definition that includes salaried and contract employees as well as those who receive an hourly wage.

Related: Association Newcomer: The Value of Volunteering Learn More >

Nature and Complexity of the Work

When deciding if a position should be staff or volunteer, the first factor to consider is the type of work required by the organization. 

Volunteer positions 

Volunteer positions are often best suited for tasks that are:

  • Less complex
  • Require less specialized expertise
  • Can be completed with minimal supervision

This might include things like: 

  • Simple administrative office tasks (i.e., filing and data entry)
  • Manning booths at trade shows
  • Setting up for meetings

Staff positions

On the other hand, staff positions are typically more appropriate for roles that: 

  • Demand specialized skills
  • Involve significant decision-making responsibility
  • Require a higher degree of commitment and accountability
  • Are governed by confidentiality rules

Staff positions might include handling sensitive financial or health information. They might also require specialized skills or be governed by rules and laws that require certification or accountability.

Time Commitment and Availability

Another essential factor is the time commitment required for the position. 


Because volunteers are donating both their time and service, it can be unreasonable to require an excessive amount of time or specific availability on a consistent basis.

Volunteers generally have limited availability and may not be able to dedicate the same amount of time as paid staff members. Volunteer positions can be more flexible and suitable for tasks that can be completed on an occasional or as-needed basis.

Related: 4 tips to help out and stand out as an all-star volunteer Learn More >


Staff positions are more suitable when the role demands a consistent and significant time commitment. Hours are generally outlined well in advance of hiring, so it makes sense that a staff position would be more appropriate for staff to handle ongoing duties that need consistent attention.

Financial Resources

Budget constraints are a key consideration when deciding between a volunteer and staff position. If an organization has limited financial resources, utilizing volunteers can be an effective way to complete tasks without incurring significant expenses. However, it is important to consider the potential drawbacks of relying solely on volunteers, such as inconsistent availability and potentially reduced commitment levels.


Volunteer positions are not compensated financially — that’s in the definition itself. This does not mean that volunteers cannot reap the benefits of their work, though. Some associations might include free membership or other professional development opportunities to “compensate” volunteers. While money does not come out of pocket, this can have minor costs to the association but generally is more feasible for organizations on a tight budget.


Hiring staff members requires a financial commitment from the very beginning. Before you even factor in the cost of salaries and benefits, the onboarding process can cost between $7,500 and $28,000 (depending on the position). For associations with limited resources, it may not be possible to create a staff position.

Long-term Sustainability

The long-term sustainability of the position should also be considered. 


Your association may love its volunteers, and it's safe to say that volunteers are committed, at least for a little while, to your association. Even so, volunteers are generally more transient and less reliable. If a volunteer on a specific project stops showing up without warning, it can be challenging to train a new one to take their place.


Staff positions can provide greater stability and continuity for an organization, as paid employees are often more committed and invested in their roles. If a role is crucial to the organization's ongoing success, hiring a staff member may be the most sustainable option.

Organizational Culture and Values

Finally, it is important to consider the organization's culture and values when deciding between a volunteer or staff position. Some organizations prioritize a strong volunteer base to promote community involvement and foster a sense of shared ownership. In these cases, prioritizing volunteer positions may align more closely with the organization's values. Conversely, other organizations may value professionalization and a clear hierarchy, making staff positions a better fit.

One culture is not better than the other, but it can be difficult to squeeze a square volunteer spirit peg into a round hierarchical hole.  Better to be clear about what the underlying culture is so you can match your volunteer/staffing needs.

Volunteers vs. Staff: Choose the Best Fit

Deciding whether to create a volunteer or staff position within an organization involves a careful evaluation of various factors. By thoroughly considering these elements, organizations can make informed decisions that best serve their needs and objectives. Ultimately, striking the right balance between volunteer and staff positions can lead to a more efficient, effective, and resilient organization.

Suzannah Kolbeck
Post by Suzannah Kolbeck
March 31, 2023
Suzannah Kolbeck writes, paints, and rides horses in Baltimore, MD. She is the author of Healing Where You Are: An Introduction to Urban Foraging.